Friday, February 07, 2014

The Snape approach to exam success

The new J1s have arrived fresh and squeaky clean from the 'O's. This year's crop is overall the best scoring we've ever had to date. They are probably used to being straight A students, but there will be a few who would be celebrating unexpectedly good results. Yay for them all.

But, no, this will not do. The leap in standard that these kids are taking is quite a tremendous gulf to bridge between secondary school and college undergrad. Because they are undergoing a major skills upgrade, they must get used to failure. Repeated failure. It is only in failure that learning takes place. Fail once, change technique. Fail twice, change approach. Fail a third time, change something else. Trial and error until something clicks. When that happens, they would have learned something new and I would have finally been successful at teaching them something new.

Does it have to be that way? Can a straight A student continue maintaining straight As throughout the course? It's possible, but at least initially that's not recommended. Fresh off the success boat, and as horrible as I sound, they have to be humbled if they are going to become teachable again.

What of their morale and self-esteem as we modern educators seem bound to pander to? The 'A' Levels is a long-term goal. We reassure the kids that they are constantly failing, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because we are always raising the bar. But no matter how badly they fail -- as long as they don't give up, and as long as they help each other along -- they would have learned so much by the end of first year that they will barely scrape through their promotional exams. The promo, after all, is not a high-stakes exam but a formative one. The barest minimal pass is sufficient for advancement, hence there is no pressure to Ace it.

Our long-term goal only comes into sight around the prelim exam in the October of the following year, which is the summative exam as far as our local jurisdiction goes. By then, they are ready to gather their own resources and Ace that. Some kids need a good result on the prelim in order to apply for early enrollment in some universities. If they don't want early enrollment, then the summative is the 'A's in November. This is the only result that counts, hence this is our target for high scoring achievement.

Once we have a perspective on what is going on at the 'A's, we realize that not every test or exam or assessment requires every student to achieve an A grade. A failing or near-failing grade is more par for the course. It's only when we can convince the kids (and middle-management) not to expect high scores in every little assessment that we can take the pressure off the kids' education experience and focus them back on real learning. And we will see a stratospheric improvement in grades all round -- but only at the end of second year.

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